Taking root: The cure for what ails you?
Move over avocados, it's all about turmeric. After its rise to superfood status, is this golden spice really a silver bullet to ill health
The concept that we might 'let food be thy medicine' is hardly a new one, being long-attributed to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of Western medicine. But it's certainly one with a modern appeal, especially among the clean-eating set beloved by today's trend-setting millenials.
We all like the idea of a super hero who can swoop in and save us, so perhaps it's no wonder that so-called 'superfoods' have such an enduring appeal. We may have reached peak avocado, but fear not - there's a new hero to woo us.
This year is shaping up to be the year of turmeric - it's been hailed as "the new kale" and "nature's wonder drug", and self-styled lifestyle gurus Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian swear by it.
The adulation of this golden-hued spice has been gathering momentum for several years. Google searches for 'turmeric' increased by 300pc between 2011 and 2016, with a dramatic spike at the end of 2015 that may or may not be related to the influential Hemsley sisters' mention of the "amazing health benefits" of turmeric - a spice that has been said to help treat everything from skin conditions to Alzheimer's.
Ella Mills of the wildly popular 'Deliciously Ella' blog included a warming turmeric tonic in her 2016 cookbook. Versions of this heated, spiced milk have since popped up everywhere from Goop's turmeric latte to our own Happy Pear's honey-sweetened version. Most recipes are based on dairy-free nut, oat or coconut milks, but turmeric-spiced fermentations such as the 'Lemon, Turmeric and Ginger Fizz' sold at Dublin's Fumbally cafe are increasingly popular too.
The Hemsley sisters' claims that turmeric is "detoxifying, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial… (and) very rich in antioxidants", don't come out of nowhere.
Millennia of Eastern ayurvedic tradition as well as decades of Western medical studies suggest a positive link between ingestion of turmeric - and specifically its prized component, curcumin - and the therapeutic treatment of a whole host of illnesses.
"Turmeric has anti-inflammatory effects but it's not a 'miracle food' - we need to look at food patterns and to include it within a balanced diet," says dietitian Paula Mee. "Disease is multi-factorial and there's no magic bullet: it's about genes, lifestyle and even attitude as much as diet.
"I would absolutely recommend it as part of a balanced diet. It's one of the allowed spices in the low FODMAP diet recommended for treatment of IBS, and it can be great for adding flavour."
Elizabeth Wall, a nutritionist with Holland & Barrett, notes that curcumin "helps to neutralise free radicals, which are basically unstable atoms that can cause damage to cells, and contribute to ageing and disease".
There's a catch though. Experts warn that while the mounds of academic research look impressive, much of the preliminary evidence of what have tended to be lab- or animal-based studies is inconclusive.
Many of the related findings need further, more robust studies to corroborate their relevance for real human life. And many of the 120-plus clinical trials conducted have been called into question by research published earlier this year in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which suggests that curcumin frequently gives false signals in drug screening tests.
So it seems that our golden spice is no silver bullet.
(Oh, and while we're at it, there appears to be no evidence to link Hippocrates with those oft-quoted words about food and medicine. Sorry.)
Still, a lack of robust evidence doesn't in itself disprove these theories - and science has often been slow to prove what our grandmothers long knew. Which brings us back to that recent clean-eating favourite of drinking turmeric lattes or golden milk. It seems this latest modern obsession is a re-packaging of an age-old Indian remedy called 'haldi doodh'.
Chef-proprietor Sunil Ghai of Dublin's acclaimed Indian restaurant, Pickle, swears by warm milk with a tablespoon of turmeric for reducing inflammation related to muscle strain ("it really works!" he insists, though admits that its bitter flavour means that "nobody wants to drink it").
Arun Kapil, of the Cork-based Green Saffron spice-blend company, suggests mixing two teaspoons of turmeric and two tablespoons of honey in almond milk or warm milk. "Some people take it like cod liver oil," he says. "I do it when I want to pick up my energy."
Ghai is a font of information for turmeric uses, which he says is as ubiquitous to Indian cuisine as salt and pepper is to Western cooking. "My mum soaks vegetables in turmeric water," he explains, invoking its antiseptic properties to banish bacteria and dirt.
Ghai himself adds turmeric to all curries cooked in his restaurant, believing that "it helps keeps the food healthy". And he has added it to his porridge every morning since he developed health issues with his heart some years ago.
A fan of applying Eastern spicing to Western cooking, Kapil recommends turmeric as an astringent, bitter culinary seasoning to cut through rich foods. He likes to add it sparingly to buttery scrambled eggs or creamy rice puddings.
But Kapil also carries a deep faith in the health benefits of what he grew up knowing as "a purifier of the body" - and of the ayurvedic belief that "if you look after your body, it will look after you".
He's currently involved in a research project together with Teagasc and UCC's APC Microbiome Institute that is setting out to prove that the polyphenols found in blends of spices have a beneficial effect on gut and brain function. They hope to publish their initial findings in the peer-reviewed Trends in Food Science and Technology later this year.
The moral of the story? Take what you read with a proverbial pinch of salt - or turmeric and pepper, if you prefer.
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